A few miles west of the Las Vegas strip, the Kush Lounge is ready for business. The pool is sparkling, the rolling papers and ashtrays are plentiful, the munchies bar is stocked with snacks, and the stripper pole by the dab bar is polished. The members-only cannabis social club aims to be the ultimate Las Vegas marijuana experience, with memberships for out-of-towners starting at $129.99 a day. (That price doesn’t include marijuana; at this venue, it’s B.Y.O.W. — bring your own weed.)
“If your purpose is to get high real quick, we’re not for you,” says Kush Lounge co-owner, who is nervous about using her real name, considering marijuana’s quasi-legal status. “If your purpose is to have a real experience and meet good people, this place is for you.”
But is the Kush Lounge ready for the start of recreational marijuana sales in Nevada later this week on July 1? “I don’t think anybody is ready,” says Kush. “I think everybody is going to get ready real quick.”
While the other states that legalized marijuana during last year’s elections plan to launch their recreational cannabis programs at the start of 2018 (Massachusetts pushed that start date back half a year), Nevada has opted for a more streamlined approach, with Governor Brian Sandoval signing off on a plan to fast-track legal marijuana before permanent regulations are in place, allowing existing medical marijuana dispensaries to start selling pot to anyone over 21 on July 1. Like most things in Nevada, it comes down to money: By launching legal marijuana now, the state stands to earn millions in additional tax revenues.
The only companies technically able to move recreational marijuana from the grow facilities to dispensaries are a handful of liquor distributors who have no experience whatsoever in doing so.
The effort also tracks with the state’s tendency to do things sooner, bigger, and flashier than anywhere else, screw the moral finger wagging. “We wanted to get an early start on this, before California [launches its recreational marijuana program],” says Jason Sturtsman, owner of Hope Cultivation & Production, a local cannabis grow facility, and vice president of Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada. “The world’s attention is going to be on us on July 1.”
But what exactly is the world going to see when legal marijuana sales begin later this week? The launch of recreational cannabis programs in other states like Colorado and Washington were marked by long customer lines and product shortages. Similar troubles could plague Nevada’s effort, especially since it’s transpiring over the July 4 weekend, one of Las Vegas’ busiest weekends of the year. Then there’s the fact that because of legal battles over who’s allowed to transport recreational marijuana in the state, no one was sure recreational marijuana sales would actually begin on July 1 until late last week.
In other words, is Sin City truly ready to add marijuana to its list of legal sins?
Despite bureaucratic uncertainties, preparations for recreational marijuana sales have been underway for months at many of Nevada’s 60 medical marijuana dispensaries, more than half of which are in or around Las Vegas. Staffing has been beefed up, operating procedures have been tweaked, product orders have been doubled or tripled. But it’s hard to know if such efforts will be enough come launch day. How exactly will shops deal with customer lines around the block, especially in the desert heat? How will employees keep shoppers moving swiftly in and out of the store, considering many will likely want to savor the experience of buying their first-ever legal weed?
Most pressing of all is whether shops will have enough marijuana on their shelves to meet customer demand. Nevada law will allow cannabis grown for its medical marijuana program to be sold as recreational cannabis, to help get the program up and running. The good news is the state’s medical marijuana cultivation facilities have long been operating at a surplus, so there’s extra cannabis around for the new program. The bad news is nobody is sure how that marijuana is going to get to the pot shops.
A decision on whether to allow July 1 sales was delayed by the fact that a group of alcohol distributors filed a lawsuit insisting they had sole right to transport recreational cannabis for the first 18 months of the program, as suggested by the ballot question passed by voters. Last week a district court judge in Carson City agreed, which means the only companies technically able to move recreational marijuana from the grow facilities to dispensaries — a job handled by cannabis companies in the state’s medical marijuana program — are a handful of liquor distributors who have no experience whatsoever in doing so.
While tourists will be able to purchase marijuana come July 1, there won’t be anywhere in town where they can consume it in a social setting, including the casinos.
“They don’t understand marijuana, they don’t understand the law, they don’t seem to grasp the subtleties of cannabis,” says Joe Brezny, a Nevada cannabis consultant who helped run the state’s legalization campaign last year. “If they work very, very hard, they may be ready to start next January.” In the meantime, Brezny isn’t sure how exactly marijuana shops are going to be supplied. “What I’m hearing is dispensaries will be able to sell the stock they have on hand on July 1, while folks work on the distribution issue behind the scenes,” he says. “So basically, if you have a 30-day supply on hand and you run out, then you are out for good unless you have fixed the distribution quandary.”
Pot shops aren’t the only ones who could be left in the lurch over supply issues. If all the marijuana on hand is sold to recreational consumers, the state’s medical marijuana patients could face shortages. “What I don’t want to have happen is for operations to lose sight of medical patients, because there might not be the same financial incentive to serve them,” says Andrew Jolley of The+Source dispensaries in Las Vegas and Henderson and president of the Nevada Dispensary Association. “There are people in our community who have come to rely on cannabis for their medical wellbeing, and it would be shameful of us to lose sight of that.” To maintain their commitment to patients, Jolley’s dispensaries will feature designated medical marijuana-only cashiers and recently installed additional handicapped parking spaces.
Distribution and supply issues aren’t the only uncertainties plaguing Nevada’s new legalized marijuana regime. While state and local officials have been mulling over rules for cannabis clubs, so far nothing has passed. That means that while tourists will be able to purchase marijuana come July 1, there won’t be anywhere in town where they can consume it in a social setting, including the casinos. (The proprietors of the Kush Lounge say they’re in the clear because they’re operating as a private social club.)
Armen Yemenidjian, CEO of the Essence dispensary chain in Las Vegas, isn’t especially worried that his three operations won’t be able to keep up with demand after July 1. Instead, he has the opposite concern. Thanks to Nevada’s stringent medical marijuana regulatory process, it’s hasn’t been cheap or easy to open a dispensary in the state. And since the program launched in 2015, less than 30,000 state residents have obtained medical marijuana licenses, not exactly a landslide. “The medical market has been extremely soft,” says Yemenidjian. “Anyone who says they are making money right now is lying.”
Yemenidjian and his colleagues are banking on recreational cannabis sales to bolster their bottom lines. And considering that one of Essence’s three locations is the only dispensary located directly on the Las Vegas strip, Yemenidjian is well positioned to benefit from a July 1 sales surge. But he says, “I am most nervous about opening my doors and nothing changing.” After all, there haven’t been any major marketing campaigns along the lines of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but for marijuana. So it’s possible everyone visiting the city over the July Fourth weekend could be too busy with all of the other attractions to realize they could also be getting high.
Still, considering it’s Vegas, it’s more than likely folks will be lining up to partake in the city’s latest legalized vice. For those who want in on the action without the headaches, Sturtsman has some advice. First off, get an idea of what you want to purchase by checking out dispensary menus at Leafly or Weedmaps, then bring cash since most pot shops don’t take credit cards. Also, hit up dispensaries in off-peak hours to avoid the crowds (many Las Vegas dispensaries are open past midnight, and several in North Las Vegas are allowed to stay open 24 hours a day). To enjoy your purchases responsibly, try to stay at a hotel where the rooms have balconies, like the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas or the Signature at MGM Grand. Otherwise, opt for discreet cannabis options, like vaporizer pens or edibles. (Although as Maureen Dowd can attest, edibles come with their own challenges.)
Finally, don’t forget to sample some of the many Las Vegas attractions that seem ready-made for those who are high. Blue Man Group while stoned, anyone?